Easier to clean up the mess

by Steve

Suburban streets and a large cemetery, viewed from the air

“It has been established, for example, that suburban streets all over America ought to be as wide as two-lane county highways, regardless of whether this promotes driving at excessive speeds where children play, or destroys the spatial relationship between the houses on the street. Back in the 1950s, when these formulas were devised, the width of residential streets was tied closely to the idea of a probable nuclear war with the Russians. And in the aftermath of a war, it was believed, wide streets would make it easier to clean up the mess with heavy equipment.”

The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-made Landscape by James Howard Kunstler

I read this a while ago and it has stuck with me. It has made me look at things differently. Walk the streets differently.

Oblivion engineered into creation. The end of something as the motivation for the design. Something beyond built-in obsolescence. The frankness and pragmatism of planning for destruction. The pointlessness of building when you expect it to evaporate. An understandable pointlessness, I suppose. Suburbs as holding pens before that blinding flash, before it all goes off.

Nuclear war now seems less likely, although we keep up those nuclear weapons. We keep voting for our war-mongers. I walk around wondering what might be conceived with its death in mind. The new buildings spring up only because the old ones are demolished. The city feels temporary.

The life cycle of a modernist building is around 60 years. Even if a nuclear apocalypse seems less likely, our built environment is less permanent than it seems. The towers spring up and I cannot tell if they are built to last, or built to dismantle. Or if permanence is less of a priority than just making money now, with cheaper materials, or new materials with greater unknowns. None of us will be around to cash in on permanence. Our legacies are shot anyway.

I used to walk past the foundations of new buildings and contemplate if that earth, once covered, would ever see daylight again. Now I walk past and know it will. And sooner than we might think.

So, do we plan the destruction, account for the destruction, or just stumble into it. And does that matter? Is it just enough to acknowledge the end is in the beginning?

It matters when clearing up the bodies (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically) matters more than the bodies themselves. I’d made a series of assumptions that design was for people. The quotation above showed me that design often has other motivations.

“User-centred design” as a discipline is an odd one. The title reveals that design hasn’t always been about who will use it. It gives away the secret. It is frightening that the discipline is considered new and revolutionary, when the concept should be considered obvious. We were never the priority. If we weren’t being manipulated, we were being ignored. It is confirmation that Nobody Has Ever Cared About You.

I want to experience more than an exit strategy. Maybe I do. But I can sense that heavy equipment, cleaning up the streets I walk.

Image from the US National Archives, via Flickr